Smile Politely

Inside Gallery 217

The transition between its previous incarnation through today has been a slow and subtle one, but the artistic space at 9 E. University Ave. is now fully converted to Gallery 217.  While its new identity is still in its infancy, it has experienced many successes since opening its doors and has even pioneered significant changes in city council policy. I sat down with gallery owners Mandy Danowitz and Maggie Kirby to discuss how their shared dream became a reality.

SP: Can you give us a brief history of your backgrounds?

Danowitz: I earned my BFA from Loyola in 2003 and taught high school Advanced Placement Art the Chicago area until 2012. After we had our son, our family moved to Champaign in 2013. I taught elementary art at St. John Lutheran for 2 and a half years. After 12 amazing years of teaching art, I have officially transitioned to running Lola’s Brush and Gallery 217, full time!

Kirby: I hold a BA in Art Education. In college, I had the opportunity to travel with a national outside art circuit, helping set up and sell artwork for artists Dave and Katie Delacruz. Currently, I teach art to elementary aged students in Rantoul.


SP: How did Gallery 217 come to be? Was being a gallery owner a something that you had always envisioned?

Danowitz: Many people felt a void after indi go closed. As a newcomer to the art community, the old gallery had a wonderful life of its own. We sort of walked into this situation where people expected it be run similar to how it had been run before. Of course we are an art studio and cater to creating art AND appreciating art! Naturally we are running it differently. I used to imagine having my own gallery when I took my high school art students on field trips to the River North Gallery District in downtown Chicago. Creating Gallery 217 has been an amazing journey. 

Kirby: James Barham really helped put us in a position to make both a gallery business and Lola’s Brush, a paint party studio, an easy transition. He had emailed me about the possibility of using his building space in a way that benefited the community. I was thrilled because as a business owner I want to provide a service that can sustain itself but also benefits the community and our clients. We were all on the same page and willing to work to make to make the vision a reality. I’ve always wanted to own my own biz in the art field.

SP: What is your take on the art culture of the CU area?

Kirby: C-U [has] an abundance of diverse cultural backgrounds, especially considering its Midwest roots.

Danowitz: We are so inspired by the artists in the CU area and excited to showcase their art work. Our main focus is art education. We have supported many local art shows and are proud to support local teachers. We work with CUDO, That’s What She Said, Those Who Teach Can, R.A.C.E.S. (before they lost their funding), The University of Illinois, and many more.

Kirby: My hope is to continue to find gaps or ways to make the art scene in town accessible and relevant. Lola’s brush and Gallery 217 have already done just that by getting family and young people who might not normally attend such events open to learning, having a shared experience, or even making a purchase which truly brings the artists story and work to life in a new way.

SP: How did you get involved in Lola’s Brush?

Danowitz: Last Spring I took a ceramics class at Parkland College and met the amazing Maggie Kirby. Maggie and I became friends right away. We were both elementary art teachers and had a lot in common. Maggie was there when I started Lola’s Brush and she contributed a lot at the beginning. As Lola’s Brush got off the ground, I knew that Maggie had to be my business partner!

Kirby: Mandy and I worked well together from the start. After taking the Parkland class together we learned of each other’s mutual interest in starting a paint party business in town. The rest was history. We started collaborating on how to make it happen in a way that was enriching and unique to what was already going on Champaign.

SP: At one end of the spectrum, you have Lola’s Brush which could be viewed as an avenue towards becoming an artist. On the other, you have a gallery that often displays the works of established artists. In terms of perception, is there ever a conflict between the two? If so, how do you reconcile that?

Danowitz: Many art galleries and fine art museums offer a variety of art curricula: classes to create art, student workshops and artist lectures to learn about art. Lola’s Brush/Gallery 217 is a multi-purpose space; we are offering all of the above!

Kirby: We really feel like Lola’s brush and the gallery go hand in hand. They both provide different services in the same field. However, historically art is known for bringing people together and breaking down barriers.

Danowitz: Our classes give people an opportunity to enjoy painting AND experience fine art. Many of our painters are working adults or students who like are but are not involved in the art scene. It’s providing exposure for people who wouldn’t normally get to go to a gallery opening.

Kirby: Although it may seem unconventional to have paint parties in a gallery space, it truly allows for open dialogue, more viewings, and what we hope [will] be a educational experience for either group of people depending on the need.


SP: Many people may be unaware of the role you played in the recent BYOB initiative in Champaign. How did you influence that?

Kirby: We started out running two business models that would really benefit from having BYOB establishments, but couldn’t legally provide the service. Approaching city council with and asking what we could do to help make it happen was key.

Danowitz: The city is incredibly supportive of the arts here and wants a small business like ours to thrive. It took a few months but we were able to be involved in getting some momentum. I am proud to say that Lola’s Brush was the first BYOB license!

SP: What is coming next at the gallery?

Danowitz: The next show, George Foster — Retrospective (opening 9/8), is being presented with 40 North. We are honored to be working with Kelly White and 40 North to offer this amazing retrospective exhibition. George Foster (1918-1999) was a professor at the U of I for almost 40 years. His collection of art work is stunning and this is a very rare opportunity to curate an exhibition of this caliber.

For more information, visit Gallery 217.

All images by Scott Wells…

Scott is a U.S. Navy veteran and a graduate of the University of Illinois. He has been a photographer and writer for Smile Politely since March of 2015.

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